Fitbit Versa review: The first non-Apple smartwatch that’s worth your time

If you don’t remember
Pebble
, it’s easy to write off Fitbit’s Versa as a cheap
Apple Watch knockoff. It has the same square body as
Apple’s dominant wristwatch. Its size strikes a perfect balance
between the 42mm and 38mm sizes. You can dress it up with a
similar series of metal and leather bands. And it comes in rose
gold.

But spend a little time with Versa and you’ll see that it’s not
as much of an imitator as it is Apple Watch’s first real
competitor. Granted, that’s not saying all that much. Fitbit
shut down Pebble before Apple Watch hit shelves, most Android
Wear/WearOS watches have been dead on arrival, and Fitbit’s own
Ionic smartwatch was
too buggy and expensive
to seriously challenge
Apple Watch
. But Fitbit’s new $200 wearable is the Pebble
Watch we always wanted, combining fitness acumen with
technological smarts into a sleek, attractive package.

fitbit versa front Michael Simon/IDG

Fitbit Versa is small, light, and packed with features.

It still has a heavy focus on fitness and health, of course,
but Versa is a something of a watershed product for both Fitbit
and the smartwatch industry, a true lifestyle product that
rights many of Ionic’s missteps and proves that Apple Watch
isn’t the only game in town.

A design for all sizes of wrist

When Fitbit launched its Ionic wearable last year, it was a bit
of a disappointment. While it predictably excelled at fitness
tracking with multi-day battery life and on-watch coaching, it
was more than a little underwhelming as a smartwatch. Too big
to appeal to anyone other than bulked-up athletes, Ionic and
its app-starved Fitbit OS was most certainly at the beginning
of what seemed to be a lengthy work in progress.

fitbit versa profile Michael Simon/IDG

One button is probably enough to control Versa but it
actually has three.

But less than six months later. Versa is pretty much everything
Ionic isn’t. While Fitbit has thankfully stuck with its square
shape, the lugs that extended aggressively above and below
Ionic’s screen are gone, leaving a squat square body. Without
the extra frame, Versa’s bands attach directly to the edges of
the watch body, giving it a more natural wristwatch look. The
similarities to Pebble Time and Apple Watch are inevitable, but
Versa is still very much its own device.

Like Ionic, Versa comes in three colors, but the black, silver,
and rose gold here feel much softer than Ionic’s gray and burnt
orange. It’s both thinner (11.2mm versus 11.4mm) and shorter
(37.6mm versus 38.6mm) than the female-friendly 38mm Apple
Watch, and its decidedly non-athletic aesthetic makes it look
more like a fashion statement than a fitness one. Where Ionic
is more at home on a treadmill or triathlon, Versa is, well,
versatile enough to be worn to a business meeting or a night
out. And perhaps most importantly, it won’t look ridiculous on
a tiny wrist.

At just 23 grams, Versa is also incredibly light, even when
using one of the heavier metal link bracelets. Swapping the
bundled sport band for one of the 16 leather or fabric ones
Fitbit is selling is easy enough, with a small lever that
controls a standard 22mm watch pin. Though Ionic’s snap-on
system is far superior, as is Apple’s slide-out mechanism,
Versa’s band options are attractive and affordable,
particularly the metal link band that Fitbit is selling for
$100. It’s not as luxurious as Apple’s Space Black link bracelet, but it’s
also $450 cheaper.

fitbit versa band Michael Simon/IDG

Versa’s band-switching mechanism isn’t as elegant as
Ionic’s, but it does the trick.

Versa’s display is on the small size at 1.34 inches—and
slightly off-center due to Fitbit’s insistence on putting its
name on the front of the device—but it’s incredibly bright and
crisp. The bezels are a little chunkier than the ones on Apple
Watch, and without a black-friendly OLED screen, you’ll notice
them a whole lot more on Versa.

The sides of the frame feature the same three-button layout as
Ionic, which is probably one button too many. Two shortcut keys
are a bit of overkill, especially since you really don’t really
need to use the buttons for navigation anymore. Swipes and taps
register much quicker on Versa than Ionic, and Fitbit has
tweaked the interface so it’s much more intuitive and
touch-friendly.

A fitness tracker with a focus on health

As a fitness tracker, Versa is pretty much Ionic without
on-board GPS, but for the price, the lack of a dedicated
tracking chip isn’t a surprise. (Apple’s Series 1 watch doesn’t
have GPS either.) More bothersome is the absence of NFC on the
base model. If you want to make payments using Fitbit Pay,
you’ll need to spring for one the $230 special-edition models,
available in graphite or rose gold with woven bands.

fitbit versa buttons Michael Simon/IDG

Versa’s concave design cuts a nice profile on your wrist.

Otherwise, everything else is here, including on-watch
training, specialized exercise tracking, and advanced heart
rate monitoring. It runs the same Fitbit OS as well, whose
library of apps have been greatly expanded from the early days
of Ionic. While it’s still nowhere near as robust as the Apple
Watch store or even Samsung’s Gear store, you’ll find a decent
selection of apps, including Yelp, The New York Times, Philips
Hue, and Nest, as well as several fitness-related apps. There
are 550 apps and clock faces available for Ionic, with about
half of them available for this review and the rest on the way,
Fitbit tells me.

Like Pebble, Fitbit’s apps are decidedly specialized and mostly
single-featured—for example, the Starbucks app is still just a
place to store your loyalty card—but I can see a similarly
passionate community building around it as Versa grows. Fitbit
has started the ball rolling with its own Fitbit Labs section,
which contains more specialized, nonessential titles, such as
Think Fast, a mental agility game, and the upcoming New Parents
app that lets moms and dads track diaper changes and feedings.

Apps load far more quickly and effortlessly than they did when
Ionic launched, and I didn’t receive any error messages when
switching clock faces. That’s an important improvement, because
users are going to want to swap out their faces a lot. While
writing this review, I counted more than 50 styles to choose
from, many of which are professionally designed with smooth
animations and up-to-date stats, and Fitbit says hundreds more
are on the way.

fitbit versa today Michael Simon/IDG

Versa’s new Today screen will show your steps, heart rate,
and other stats.

Fitbit’s impressive sleep tracking is on display here too,
though the lack of a dedicated app means you’ll have to log
into your dashboard to see the results. Fitbit has added a
nifty Today screen that shows your daily stats by swiping up
from the bottom of the screen. While it isn’t as visually
polished as Apple’s Activity app, it’s a smart way to see
steps, goals, floors, distance, and workouts. And coming soon,
women will also be able to track their menstrual cycle on this
screen, an important piece of Versa’s feature set that isn’t
quite ready yet.

Period tracking gives Versa an important distinction over Apple
Watch. While Apple gives women a way to track their cycles
using Health or various third-party apps on the iPhone, Fitbit
will be baking it more deeply into its ecosystem, pushing it to
Versa and prominently displaying it in the Fitbit app. Women
have long been underserved by the smartwatch, and Fitbit’s
whole approach with Versa is a breath of fresh air.

The killer feature is battery life 

Versa’s battery life is about the same as Ionic, but it’s even
more impressive in such a small package. I wore Versa along
with an Apple Watch Series 3 while listening to an hour of
music, two half-hour workouts, six hours of sleep, and lots of
notifications, and here’s what was left after 24 hours:

Fitbit Versa: 75 percent
Apple Watch: 38 percent

That’s not a small difference by any stretch. Those numbers put
Ionic’s battery life at exactly four days, but I reckon most
people will be able to push it into a fifth. The biggest
battery suck was music playback, but even then, I lost just
eight percent after an full hour of listening, as compared to
14 percent on Apple Watch.

When you need to charge it, Fitbit has introduced yet another
plug with Versa, and this one is a little less portable than
Ionic’s magnetic cable. The watch comes with a small cradle
that opens when you pinch the sides and shuts to hold the watch
in place. It’s a nice piece and I liked it better than Apple’s
inductive puck, but some outdoors enthusiasts might miss being
able to toss a simple cable into their bag on lengthy sojourns.

fitbit versa notifications
Michael Simon/IDG

Notifications aren’t interactive in Versa and sometimes
you’ll get duplicates.

Notifications on Versa mimic the ones on your phone, so unless
you spend some time managing them on the Fitbit app, you’ll
probably be getting a pretty consistent stream of buzzes. You
can set default message, calendar, and email apps from the ones
installed on your phone, and notifications from those apps will
receive a degree of prominence, but the system isn’t nearly as
robust or refined as Apple’s. You can’t interact with
notifications in any way (even if a Versa version of the
originating app is installed on your watch), and they
occasionally duplicated or didn’t show up at all.

Fitbit has at least promised to bring Android quick replies in
a future update, but for the most part, notifications on Versa
or any other Fitbit smartwatch will never be central to the
experience. I can live with that, though I wouldn’t mind Fitbit
adding voice control or teaming with Amazon to bring Alexa to
Versa. The lack of any sort of assistant is a glaring omission
in the age of AI, and it would make a great addition to Versa
2.

Should you buy a Fitbit Versa?

The $200 Fitbit Versa is hardly a perfect smartwatch. It’s
missing GPS and NFC, has a small library of apps, and doesn’t
have any sort of voice control or AI assistant. However, it has
three important things going for it: it’s small, it’s
attractive, and it has a great battery. Plus it costs $50 less
than the cheapest Series 1 Apple Watch.

fitbit versa flowers Michael Simon/IDG

Versa has decidedly softer aesthetic than Ionic, which
should appeal to a broader range of buyers.

If you aren’t an Apple devotee, Versa is a no-brainer, but
iPhone users who don’t want to spend $350 to $400 on an Apple
Watch Series 3 should take a hard look at Fitbit’s new
smartwatch. And since it works across multiple platforms (iOS,
Android, and any remaining Windows Phone users) you won’t be
stuck with a piece of costume jewelry if you switch.

Back when Apple Watch was just a glimmer in Jony Ive’s eye,
Pebble was showing the world what a smartwatch could and should
be. That spirit can be felt all over Versa. And something tells
me it’ll make a much bigger dent in the smartwatch landscape
than a pebble would.

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